Sambo master Blagoy Ivanov makes his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut against former champion Junior dos Santos this weekend in the main event of UFC Fight Night 133. Ivanov was the longest reigning heavyweight champion in the history of World Series of Fighting, but he faces his toughest test to date when he faces off with Dos Santos who has only lost one non-title fight in his UFC career.
One Last Chance
At 34 years old and having gone through some of the worst beatings in UFC history, we might be looking at the end of Junior dos Santos’s seven-year title contention run. Since winning the heavyweight championship from Cain Velasquez in 2011, Dos Santos has been in the running for a title and has fought for the belt on four occasions. Now he takes on Ivanov, who has been the best heavyweight fighter outside of the UFC for many years.
Although Dos Santos can be a slick boxer, he built his career on his power and nasty overhand rights and uppercuts. He likes to mix in his brilliant and technical boxing with wild overhand rights and hooks and seems he would rather put on a good fight than box someone up for five rounds. Against Cain Velasquez, Junior was pumping out jabs early to get a read on his reactions. Every time he would jab Velasquez would attempt to land his own. Later in the round, Dos Santos again feinted the jab and Velasquez attempted to counter with his own jab which opened him up to the overhand right over his extended lead hand.
Dos Santos’s overhands and uppercuts may look chaotic but they are set up with systematic feints and reads from throughout the fight. Throughout his career, Fabricio Werdum’s go-to counter for jabs has been a step-in right hook. Dos Santos made this read early in the first round and double-feinted the jab, expecting Werdum to throw the right hook where he could land an uppercut between his guard.
Dos Santos is known as an aggressive power puncher but has some of his best moments working on the counter. In his first fight with Stipe Miocic, he routinely countered Miocic’s disorderly aggression including this beautiful left hook. Notice how Dos Santos throws a right straight while dipping to his left and switching to a southpaw stance, then landing the left hook at an unexpected angle as Miocic overlooked the switch.
Blagoy Ivanov may not be known by the casual fan but the Combat Sambo master may be on the short path to title contention. In a division desperate for new blood, a win over No. 8-ranked Dos Santos could project Ivanov into contender status.
What makes this fight so interesting is that Ivanov is exceptional at what Dos Santos has historically struggled with and vice versa. Dos Santos’s biggest undoing is his inability to deal with pressure and get off the cage and Ivanov does his best work pressuring against the cage. On the contrary, Ivanov is short and stocky for heavyweight and can get picked apart from distance, where Dos Santos thrives. With the threat of his grappling and a chin made of steel, Ivanov can walk through his opponent's strikes and back them to the cage where he will throw wild combos to finish the fight.
Ivanov’s aggression and inside boxing are his bread and butter but he possesses an underrated countering game. If opponents are first to move, Ivanov has an incredible counter left straight and lead hook, as seen against Derrick Mehmen. Ivanov’s counter left down the middle could come into play against Dos Santos’s often wide and loopy strikes.
As an International Master of Sports in Sambo and a Black Belt in Judo, Ivanov often relies on his grappling to negate bigger opponents. Ivanov is a two-time medalist in the World Combat Sambo Championships including gold in 2008. During his 2008 run, he became one of the few men to ever beat MMA and Sambo legend Fedor Emelianenko and did so at just 21 years old.
Ivanov is the most accomplished grappler in the division outside of Daniel Cormier and is a matchup nightmare for many top 10 fighters including Dos Santos. If he can continue to develop his striking and work his way up the rankings, we could be looking at a future title contender after the Cormier-Lesnar debacle.